How Mindfulness Can Transform the Classroom

By Tish Jennings

“How are things going for you?” I asked Jan, a fourth-grade teacher participating in the federally funded research project being conducted in New York City. Jan had just completed the first two days of the CARE for Teachers mindfulness-based teacher professional development program and I had called her for a phone coaching session to see how she was doing as she practiced bringing a more mindful approach to her teaching. “Great!” she said, “This week I noticed a big difference. Instead of raising my voice when I was frustrated, I tried taking a deep breath and calming myself down. I can’t believe how well this worked. When I calmed down, the kids actually began to calm down too.” For the past ten years since we began to develop CARE, we’ve heard many similar stories from teachers successfully applying skills they learned in CARE to their interactions with their students.

The CARE for Teachers program reflects the culmination of my 30+ years of experience as an educator and mindfulness practitioner. As a teacher, I found that my own mindfulness practice helped me manage my classroom. When I was practicing regularly, I found that I could handle challenging behaviors with more composure. I took student behaviors less personally and could more often respond thoughtfully, rather than react unconsciously to stressful classroom situations. I was also more able to recognize the needs and perspectives of my students. As a result, I found I could more effectively orchestrate the social and emotional dynamics of my classroom in a way that promoted optimal learning.

Then I joined the faculty of a teacher education program and spent 15 years supervising student teachers and teaching classroom management and I began to realize how much my mindfulness practice was really helping me. Every week I spent hours observing classrooms and I noticed how stress and emotional reactivity interfered with my students’ and their supervising teachers’ classroom management. While I recognized that my mindfulness practice was helping me, at the time, I wasn’t sure how to teach others. It was years before we had such a large body of evidence of the positive effects of mindfulness. Today, a growing body of research is demonstrating that mindfulness-based interventions are effective for reducing stress and promoting a variety of dimensions of well-being among adults. In 2006, I became the Director of the Initiative for Contemplative Teaching and Learning at the Garrison Institute and I invited my colleagues Richard Brown of Naropa University and Christa Turksma of Penn State University work together to develop a mindfulness-based stress reduction program especially designed for teachers. CARE for Teachers is the result of this collaboration.

Today, many teachers are not well prepared for the social and emotional demands of the classroom. Increasing numbers of children are coming to school with unmet needs. Children at risk of psychological and behavioral problems often pose challenges for unprepared teachers. These students have more difficulty attending to learning activities, sitting still, and getting along with their peers. They can disrupt lessons by creating chaos in the classroom, something many of us dread and try to avoid at all costs. Under these stressful conditions, we become more likely to burnout and leave the profession at a time when, more than ever, we a need workforce of calm, supportive, and understanding teachers. Indeed, recent statistics are alarming. Nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching costing school districts in the tens of millions to replace them. The good news is that research is beginning to show that mindfulness-based approaches can help teachers manage the stresses of the classroom.

We developed CARE to help teachers cultivate the skills they need to promote a calm, relaxed, but enlivened learning environment that can prepare children for the future by fostering creativity, innovation, collaboration, and cooperation. This sort of classroom requires a teacher who is fully aware and present as she or he teaches and interacts with students, parents, and colleagues, and CARE provides teachers with the tools to achieve this.

Since 2008, we’ve been conducting research to examine the efficacy of CARE. With support from two grants from the U.S. Department of Education Institute of Educational Sciences (IES), we’ve applied the most rigorous research methods to determine whether CARE helps teachers the way we had intended. Our most recent randomized controlled trial was conducted in New York City with 224 teachers from 36 elementary schools located in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan. Teachers were randomly assigned within schools to receive CARE or be in a waitlist group. The results of this research provide solid evidence that CARE has significant positive impacts on teachers’ well-being. CARE reduces personal destress and the stress associated with time pressure and improves emotion regulation. It also promotes mindfulness.

What’s more, CARE demonstrated significant beneficial effects on classroom interactions as observed and rated by researchers who were blind to the teachers’ random assignment. The classrooms of the teachers who received CARE were rated as more emotionally supportive compared to those in the control group. The interactions in the classroom were more emotionally positive and the teachers demonstrated greater sensitivity to their students’ needs than controls. Finally, the students in the CARE classrooms were rated as more productive than those in the control group. What’s truly amazing about these findings is that CARE focuses entirely on teachers’ own well-being and social and emotional skills. It does not provide any training in classroom management or teaching strategies. Indeed, this is the first study of its kind to demonstrate that such a training can have significant impacts on observable dimensions of classroom interactions. Furthermore, it suggests that mindfulness-based interventions can have “downstream” effects on the classroom environment. (The study was recently featured in Education Week and University of Virginia Today.)

We hosted our 10th Annual CARE for Teachers Retreat at the Garrison Institute. Past participants have called it “summer camp for teachers” because it’s so much fun. Teachers learn and practice a variety of mindfulness-based and compassion practices and how to apply them to their teaching through a variety of activities including reflection, discussion and role plays. Teachers learn valuable information about emotions and the role they play in teaching and learning. There is plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful grounds of the Garrison Institute and to socialize with other educators committed to bringing a more mindful approach to teaching and learning.

Patricia (Tish) Jennings, M.Ed., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. She led the team that developed CARE for Teachers and is a Senior Fellow at the Garrison Institute. 

One comment on “How Mindfulness Can Transform the Classroom”

  1. Nash Rich says:

    I learned a little about mindfulness in a psychology class back in college, but I never got very good at it. I could really use the skill of letting things slide off better, and not get bothered. I never considered how practicing mindfulness, can benefit those around you. Thanks for the info!

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